Friday, August 19, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Razorbacks establish O-line

Special to The Leader

Tuesday’s latest Arkansas Razorbacks offensive line alignment vaulted redshirt freshman Jalen Merrick from pressing Jake Raulerson at first-team right tackle to first-team right guard, with center Frank Ragnow, left guard Hjalte Froholdt, left tackle Dan Skipper and Raulerson staying put.

Tuesday’s second offensive line had sophomore Zach Rogers, the first-team right guard in last Saturday’s scrimmage, at center with junior college transfer Deion Malone at right guard and Johnny Gibson of Dumas at left guard, Brian Wallace at right tackle and redshirt freshman Colton Jackson of Conway at left tackle.

Senior Skipper, a 4-year starter was asked after Tuesday’s practice about Merrick’s promotion from Coach Bret Bielema and line coach Kurt Anderson.

“Jalen played really well in the scrimmage at tackle,” Skipper said. “We thought that moving him inside to play guard would be a really good move for him. He’s so big (6-4, 322) and strong, any time you can get a guy like that in the middle, it’s a huge asset for our line. The biggest thing with him is just making sure he knows where he’s going at guard and the footwork. Guard is actually a lot more technical for us than tackle.”

Skipper knows. He started at guard as a 2013 freshman then left tackle as a sophomore and right tackle last year.

Merrick says he’s practiced at every offensive line position since redshirting last year out of Oak Hill, Fla.

“Just wherever they put me, that’s where I’m going to play,” Merrick said. “Just come out to practice and do whatever I am told to do.”
How does he like right guard?

“ I like it,” Merrick said. “Pretty much anything on the right side is my cup of tea.”

Tea now with no sugar.

“I was pretty heavy pushing about 350 when I first reported here (last year),” Merrick said. “Slimming down a lot has really helped me move and get lighter on my feet. When I was heavy I would just get tired and out of energy and never really looked good after the first couple of plays.”

Fourth-year junior quarterback Austin Allen noticed Merrick’s weight loss and performance gain.

“He’s probably in the best shape that I have ever seen him in,” Allen said. “I really feel like he can help us.”

Allen approves through all the offensively personnel shifting that junior Frank Ragnow, the starting right guard last year and backup center in 2014, had just a day or two at guard this August and otherwise has been first-team center.

“Frank has pretty well been at center the whole fall camp and we have great chemistry,” Allen said. “He’s kind of the point guard out there for the offensive line getting all the calls right.”

Despite all the offensive personnel switching at guard and tackle and the acknowledged prowess of Arkansas’ defensive line, the makeshift O-line in last Saturday’s scrimmage sprung running backs Rawleigh Williams, the sophomore proving healed from last fall’s broken neck, for 67 yards and 14 carries and a touchdown against the first-defense. Freshman Devwah Whaley netted 97 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries behind both the first and second lines against the first and second defense.

The shifting line’s steady blocking didn’t surprise Williams.

“The reason they are shifting is because we have so many athletes at the O-line,”

Williams said. “All those guys can play and we are trying to find the best group. I have confidence in all of them. Every day I look at the lineup and kind of laugh because it’s always something different. But they always have a good day and always open holes.”

Certainly with senior Kody Walker, 4 carries for 27 yards before re-injuring his foot, Williams and Whaley excelling, Allen acknowledged all the running backs questions seem answered despite thousand-yard rushers Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams both turning pro after last season.

“We have got a stable of backs back there,” Allen said. “You saw Devwah on Saturday. He’s the real deal. Rawleigh ran hard. He’s the real deal also. All those guys really. They all have got something special and they are all capable.”

Senior receiver Keon Hatcher was rested Tuesday with what he called a minor shoulder injury while the Hogs likely will be minus senior receiver Dominique Reed of Camden for two weeks off after spraining an ankle last Saturday.

The receiving corps, with freshman Jordan Jones of Smackover back since Monday after missing two practices and the scrimmage with illness last week, pressed on Tuesday, Allen said.

“It kind of gives other guys opportunities,” Allen said. “Cody Hollister has been a beast all camp running great routes and catching everything that’s thrown to him. And Jordan Jones has flashed all camp long also. He is making one-handed catches and looks like an older vet guy out there running great routes. He came back Monday and hasn’t missed a beat.”